The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory and Planck Surveyor were launched successfully on Thursday May 14 from Kourou, French Guyana. These are two of the most powerful and ambitious astronomical satellites yet flown. They will explore the Universe throughout almost its entire history, from just moments after the Big Bang, through the formation and evolution of galaxies, to the birth of stars and planets in our own galaxy today. The School of Physics and Astronomy has made major contributions to both projects, and will continue to be strongly involved in their operation and in the scientific analysis of the data.
The launch sequence was executed flawlessly beginning with lift-off of the powerful Ariane 5 rocket at 10:12 AM in Kourou (2:12 PM in the UK). About 25 minutes after launch, with the rocket hurtling into space at about 35,000 km/hour, the Herschel and Planck satellites were successfully released. The satellites are now traveling to their orbital locations about 1.5 million km away from the Earth (about four times further away than the Moon). So far all systems are working as expected. It will take several months to check out and optimise the spacecraft and the instruments, then they will start their observations.
On board Herschel is the SPIRE instrument, developed by an international consortium of 18 institutes in eight countries, and led by Professor Matt Griffin. The Planck satellite contains the HFI instrument, built by an international consortium including a team at Cardiff led by Professor Peter Ade. The Astronomy Instrumentation Group, which specialises in advanced instrumentation for infrared and submillimetre astronomy, has provided several important elements of the SPIRE and HFI instruments, and will participate in the testing and operation of both instruments after launch.
Herschel carries the largest space telescope ever launched. Its 3.5 m-diameter mirror will give astronomers their best view yet of the Universe at far-infrared and sub-millimetre wavelengths. It will peer through obscuring clouds of dust to look at the early stages of star birth and galaxy formation; it will examine the composition and chemistry of comets and planetary atmospheres in the Solar System; and it will be able to study the star-dust ejected by dying stars into interstellar space which form the raw material for planets like the Earth. Meanwhile, Planck will survey the whole sky in nine wavelength bands, studying the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, left over from the Big Bang, to unprecedented accuracy. Cosmologists will be able to compare these results with the predictions of their theories of the Big Bang and the fundamental physics that led to it.
Professor Griffin said: “With its big telescope and its sophisticated and sensitive instruments, Herschel will study the cosmos at wavelengths a few hundred times longer that that of visible light. It will offer astronomers a very powerful tool for many studies from our own solar system to the most distant galaxies. The results will reveal how stars like the Sun are forming in our own galaxy today, how the galaxies grew and evolved over cosmic time, and how planetary systems can develop from the dust and gas around young stars. Astronomers from Cardiff will be at the forefront in making these exciting scientific discoveries.”
Professor Ade said “The Planck satellite will revolutionise our understanding of how the Universe we live in began in the first split second of the Big Bang, and it will use the early universe as a laboratory for fundamental physics, revealing new insight into the forces of nature.”
Other Cardiff astronomers are also busy preparing for scientific observations with Herschel and Planck, and are leading a number of the major science programmes that the satellites will carry out.
Professor Derek Ward Thompson, whose research is focused on star formation in our galaxy, said: “We are all really excited about the prospects offered by Herschel. The SPIRE camera in particular will give us an unprecedented look into the heart of nearby regions of star formation, with a depth and resolution we have never seen before.”
Professor Steve Eales, who specialises in the formation and evolution of galaxies, said: “Half the energy emitted by galaxies is concealed by interstellar dust from optical telescopes. Herschel will be the first telescope to study this missing energy, and we will use the results to figure out how galaxies work and how they were formed in the first place.”
Dr. Jon Davies, who studies galaxies and dark matter, said: “Up to now much of the Universe has been obscured from view – with the Herschel Telescope we will for the first time be able to see through the cosmic fog to reveal a new plethora of intriguing astronomical delights.”
Dr. Haley Gomez, who studies the creation of cosmic dust, said: “Herschel will be the first space telescope to be able to study cosmic dust in detail. Cosmic dust is important because it helps stars to form and constitutes the building blocks for rocky planets like the Earth, and indeed life. But we don’t know where and when all this dust was made, and Herschel will finally unlock the mysteries about its origin and nature.”